Some Like It Brazen – Deborah Raleigh, Alexandra Ivy

“For God’s sake, Edward, halt your fidgeting before I have you tied to the bedpost,” Lord Bidwell groused. Edward Sinclair, fifth Earl of Harrington, smiled with rueful amusement. He was a large gentleman with the thick muscles of a person accustomed to hard labor and chestnut curls that were brushed toward a countenance too bronzed for fashion and features too forceful for beauty. He was, however, blessed with warm hazel eyes and an unexpected pair of charming dimples. Thankfully, he was also blessed with rare good humor and a patient nature. A stroke of fortune considering most would have bolted after a fortnight of enduring Biddles’s wretched notions of how to mold a proper gentleman. “I defy any gentleman not to do a measure of fidgeting after three tedious hours of being brutally bathed, brushed, and bedeviled. I can assure you that I have been more kindly handled during taproom brawls.” “Halt your complaining. You are fortunate your form is such that I had no need to order a corset. They are damnably uncomfortable, according to most,” Biddles retorted with a supreme lack of sympathy. “Of course they are all the rage since the Prince has taken to wearing them. Perhaps we may yet consider one.” Edward lifted one warning brow. “You would not dare.

” The slender, flamboyantly attired dandy with a narrow countenance and piercing eyes smiled with a bland superiority. “Not only would I dare, my dear Edward, but I would twist, tuck, and squeeze you into it myself if I thought it necessary.” With a flourish the gentleman produced a lacy fan to wave before his pointed nose. “I have warned you that all of society will be anxious to cast their judgment upon the new Earl of Harrington. Especially since they are already titillated by your elevation from farmer to earl in one fell stroke. Do not doubt every eye will be searching for some exposure of your rustic manners and lack of worldly experience.” “Meaning that they will expect me to arrive at their soirees complete with mud on my boots and a cow in tow?” “That is precisely what they will expect.” Edward smiled wryly. “It is not that I doubt your judgment, Biddles, which is always quite beyond question,” he murmured. “But I must admit that I have yet to comprehend how being scrubbed until I am raw, and then strangled by my valet—who by the way is taking inordinate pleasure in my torture —is to assure the ton that I do not reek of the country.

” The ebony fan was abruptly snapped shut as Biddles advanced across the hideous paisley carpet. During his rigorous training in manners, deportment, and dancing since arriving in London, Edward had not yet had the opportunity to do more than make a cursory inspection of the enormous townhouse. Certainly there had been no time to renovate the opulent grandeur to a more simple style suitable to a bachelor of modest taste. “Dear God, Edward, how often must I remind you? A gentleman can always be distinguished by his attire, and most importantly by the tie of his cravat. It is what sets apart a true nobleman from those of lesser quality.” Edward could not help but chuckle at the absurdity of his friend’s words. It was precisely the sort of logic he would never comprehend. Regardless of the number of titles that were dumped upon his unwilling shoulders. “Do you mean to tell me, my dear Biddles, that among a nation with the greatest minds and the most progressive scientists, as well as highly respected philosophers, poets, and warriors, all we have to set us above the savages is the perfection of a knot in a length of linen?” There was a cough from one of the numerous uniformed servants that were crowded into the room until Lord Bidwell’s unnerving gaze fell upon the hapless man. “Leave us,” he commanded.

“I will speak with his lordship alone.” As one the servants anxiously filed out of the room, all too pleased to be away from the dandy’s sharp tongue and habit of flaying those who dared to interfere in his torturous lessons. Only the welltrained valet was daring enough to linger a rebellious moment to pluck a tiny thread from the shoulder of Edward’s mulberry jacket before he too joined the mass retreat. Once alone with his friend, Edward strolled to glance at his form in the floor-length mirror. He grimaced at the satin white pantaloons and silver waistcoat. Such elegance might be de rigueur for an evening in London, but he felt a dashed fool. Gads, he had seen trained monkeys who looked more comfortable in satin and diamonds than he did. What did he know of society? He had not been raised to take his place among the upper ten thousand. Indeed, during most of his eight and twenty years he had been only vaguely aware of any connection to the aristocracy. The knowledge that he had become heir upon the death of the old Earl, followed swiftly by the death of his son and two nephews, came as much of a shock to him as to the horrified Harrington family, which viewed him as little better than a puffed-up encroacher.

The sudden slap of the fan upon his shoulder had Edward reluctantly turning to meet the glittering gaze of the elegant gentleman. “Edward, there are few who are as well versed in traversing society as I,” Biddles warned in stern tones. “Which, I flatter myself, is precisely the reason that you requested that I be the one to introduce you to society. I am quite as cognizant of the ridiculousness of the ton as you. Perhaps more so. But while I might secretly find the shallowness and too-common lack of intelligence a source of amusement, I have never made the mistake of underestimating the power that society wields. Never.” Edward heaved an inward sigh. His friend was right, of course. Even if he did not care a fig for the opinion of society for himself, he could not forget that he now possessed a far-flung family that depended upon him to maintain a certain dignity.

One of the many burdens that had come with the title. More importantly, however, was the knowledge that if he hoped to use his newfound position to help those he had left behind, he would have to win the confidence of his fellow noblemen. His seat in the House of Lords would be meaningless if he were seen as a bumbling simpleton without the necessary skills to move through society. Or to demand entrance to the various gentlemen’s clubs, which, of course, were where the true power was hoarded. “Forgive me, Biddles.” He offered a faint bow of his head. “I do not mean to make light of my entrance to society. It is only that I feel awkward and not at all confident that I shall not make an utter ass of myself.” The thin features abruptly settled back into the familiar sardonic amusement. “Do not fear, Edward.

You may not be the most dashing or elegant of gentlemen, but you are intelligent and you do possess a measure of charm when you choose to exert yourself.” “Thank you . I think.” The pale blue eyes glittered. “And with a bit of luck, you will not be a complete ass.” He tilted back his head to laugh at the tart compliment. Biddles would never be considered a comfortable companion. He could play the buffoon to perfection or suddenly reveal the razor-edged brilliance that had once made him the most successful spy the Crown had ever possessed. But Edward did not regret his choice in seeking help. Despite the fact that Biddles was currently the proprietor of Hellion’s Den, an elegant gambling establishment, he was undoubtedly a leader of society and the perfect companion to introduce Edward to the more fastidious ton.

“Well, I may wound several maidens unfortunate enough to be my partner upon the dance floor and forget which fork to use, but at least my cravat is glorious perfection and my coat cut so tightly I can barely breathe. I trust no one shall mistake me for the gardener.” Biddles offered a condemning sniff. “As if any gardener could afford a coat cut by Weston.” “Or would be ridiculous enough to want one.” Edward sucked in a deep breath. As much as he might long to remain in the dubious comfort of the drafty house, he knew that it was impossible. It was time to take his place as Earl of Harrington. Whether he desired the position or not. “Shall we be on our way?” Lady Bianca, daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Lockharte, was in a towering fury.

Not an uncommon event. Despite the endless parade of governesses who had tried to coax, coerce, and downright bully her into becoming a properly modest lady, she possessed a fiery temper and habit of speaking first and thinking later. Often much later. In her defense, however, she was always swift to admit when she was in the wrong and never took her ill humor out upon servants or staff who were in no position to defend themselves. Not that any servants willingly lingered when Lady Bianca pitted her will against her father. It was said below stairs that it was preferable to stick a hand into a hornet’s nest than to stumble into a blueblooded battle. Even the butler, who was well known to consider himself just a step below royalty, was swift to scamper toward the servant’s quarters when he heard the first of the delicate Wedgwood plates launched against the door. Unaware of the household exodus to safer grounds, Bianca stomped angrily from one end of the vast library to the other. She briefly considered hefting a few of the rare, leather-bound books at the door. They would make a much nicer thud than the china she had tossed.

But while she was furious enough to throttle something, or better yet someone, she had not plunged into utter stupidity. The large, silver-haired duke with a powerful, handsome countenance could be astonishingly indulgent toward his only daughter. Most would say too indulgent. But he would have her head on a platter if she so much as touched one of his beloved books. As if sensing her smoldering need for destruction, her father settled more comfortably upon the elegant damask sofa and waved his hand toward the shelves of painted china. “I do believe that you missed one of your mother’s Wedgwood plates, Bianca, in case you are still in the mood to act like a petulant child,” he drawled. Bianca came to an abrupt halt to glare at her father. She could actually feel the hair on the nape of her neck stand upright, like the hair of a bristling cat. “This is unacceptable. You had no right to refuse Lord Aldron’s offer of marriage,” she gritted between her clenched teeth.

A silver brow arched at her scathing words. “As a matter of fact, I had every right. Despite your oft-stated belief that you are in charge of the world and everyone in it, I am still your father and I will not have you toss away your future upon a practiced rogue. Certainly not one who would make you miserable within a week.” Bianca sucked in a sharp breath. She had known that the duke possessed no great fondness for Lord Aldron. How could she not? The two men had only to be in the same room for the ice to begin to form. But she had not thought he would sink to tossing about such slanderous insults. “Lord Aldron is not a rogue.” “Bah.

Only an innocent such as you would not know of his infamous reputation.” Her father’s expression hardened with an unfamiliar disgust. “For God’s sake, he is a hardened rake, a gambler, and an adventurer who has been mired in scandal from the day he stepped foot into London.” Bianca resisted the urge to roll her eyes. Innocent or not, she was perfectly aware of Stephen’s reputation. It was that hint of danger that had attracted her to him in the first place. Well, that and his delicious blond hair and deep blue eyes, she acknowledged with a faint shiver. For a young maiden who had been kept ruthlessly protected her entire life, what could be more fascinating than a gentleman who dared to ignore the tedious rules of society? He was fiery, unpredictable, and most of all perfectly willing to teach her of the world outside her pampered existence. Quite simply irresistible. “You are hardly one to throw stones, Father,” she retorted, her dark eyes flashing fire.

“From all I have heard, you indulged in your own share of scandals when you were young.” “My scandals did not include fighting duels, hosting Cyprian balls in my home, or leading innocent young females into danger.” Her brows snapped together. “Danger? That is absurd.” One of the very few who did not fear her temper, the Duke rose to his feet and regarded her with a somber expression. “I am not a fool, Bianca. I am well aware that the scoundrel has lured you from the house so you could attend boxing matches and horse races, as well as a bawdy pantomime that was not fit for the eyes of a harlot, let alone an unwed lady,” he interrupted in stark tones. Her breath caught in shock. Oh . botheration.

So much for her carefully elaborate schemes to hide her exhilarating outings. Obviously being a Duke included knowing every damnable thing that happened in London. It was with an effort that she met his accusing gaze. “Do not hold Stephen to blame. It was upon my urging that he escorted me to such places.” “Which is the only reason I did not take a horsewhip to him, I assure you.” “And I only urged him to do so because I am sick to death of being treated as if I am a witless idiot without the ability to think for myself or to make even the simplest of decisions.” His eyes narrowed at her sharp words. “You are my daughter. It is my duty to protect you.

” Bianca nearly screamed in frustration. On how many occasions had she heard the familiar lecture? A hundred? A thousand? Certainly it was trotted out whenever she happened to be in danger of having a bit of fun. “I am not your daughter. I am a pretty doll you put on display and then tuck away when I am not of use. At least Stephen realizes that I am a woman perfectly capable of knowing something of the world.” “Oh, no doubt Lord Aldron has played his role well. He is, after all, a highly successful seducer and quite accustomed to doing whatever necessary to please a lady.” He lifted a deliberate brow. “I wonder, however, if you have considered why the gentleman has shown such a marked interest in you after so assiduously avoiding debutantes?” Bianca had a sudden vision of a cat toying with a mouse. And she wasn’t the cat.

“He finds me . fascinating.” “No, my child. What he finds fascinating is your rumored dowry.” She blinked in shock. Then blinked again. “Father.” “The man is without a feather to fly with,” the Duke retorted in hard tones. “Despite having hocked every belonging he possesses, he is still mired in debt. There is not a gambling house in town that will allow him across the threshold, and his clubs have long since turned him away.

His only hope to avoid fleeing to the Continent is to snatch a bride too naïve to see beyond a handsome countenance and shallow charm.” Bianca gritted her teeth. She would not listen to her father. She could not. To do so would mean that the gentleman who had stolen her heart, the one who had offered her the promise of a glorious future without tedious rules and expectations, was nothing more than a lie. The servants had been wise to go into hiding. “I will not listen to such slander. Stephen loves me.” The Duke curled his lip in disgust. “Lord Aldron loves no one but himself.

” “You do not know him as I do.” “I know him far better than you, Bianca.” There was a brief pause before her father lifted his chin to a stubborn angle. “Which is precisely why he will never be your husband.” Her chin tilted to match his own. Damn and blast but she was weary of being dictated to as if she were a mindless dolt. At least Stephen made the pretense of listening to her desires. “I am two and twenty, Father, and quite at liberty to do whatever I please. You cannot halt me from wedding Stephen.” Her hands were planted on her hips just in the unlikely event the Duke did not realize the extent of her resolution.

The Duke calmly adjusted the cuffs of his elegant coat. Her teeth snapped together at his deliberate nonchalance. “Perhaps not, but do you truly believe that either of you will be content living in some decrepit cottage or renting rooms in the stews?” He smiled without humor. “I assure you that it might seem charming enough in storybooks, but there is nothing pleasurable in scrubbing your own floors or freezing before an empty grate. Besides which, Lord Aldron would barter off his own mother before becoming a pauper.” “Pauper?” Her momentary bravado faltered with stunning speed. “You would disinherit me?” Without warning, her father’s eyes darkened with what seemed an emotion strangely close to regret. “There would be no need for such drastic measures. I simply have nothing to offer as a dowry.” “But .

that is absurd.” “It is the simple truth.” “I do not understand.” “Because I never intended you to understand,” her father admitted with a harsh sigh. “With your beauty and position, I simply assumed that when you chose your husband you would have the good sense to select one with a large fortune. It is after all what most maidens do.” Her brows snapped together. Most maidens were not the daughter of a duke, she thought with a tingle of panic. For God’s sake, she had never devoted a moment to considering something so tedious as wealth. “But what of my dowry?” she demanded.

“What do you think has funded your very expensive Seasons for the past four years?” For perhaps the first time in her young life, Bianca’s swift wits deserted her. Her brain froze and she was forced to open and close her mouth several times before she at last managed to speak. “Are you telling me that we have no money?” There was a moment of silence before her father turned to stroll toward the large bay window. He kept his back turned as he at last cleared his throat. “Being a duke is an expensive business, my dear. I have estates that need constant upkeep, a near battalion of servants to keep paid and pensioned, tenants to keep housed, your brothers schooled, and of course you and your mother properly clothed and bejeweled.” “But what of your rents and investments?” His gaze remained trained upon the Mayfair street below him. “They would be adequate as a rule, but while London has devoted itself to pleasure, war has ravaged the world. Trade has all but disappeared, and not nearly enough able-bodied men remain to tend to the lands.” He gave a frustrated shake of his head.

“These are troubled times for all landowners. Would you have me stand aside and watch my tenants starve?” Well, for goodness’ sake. Of course she would not wish for anyone to starve. Still, she found it difficult to accept that matters had come to such a desperate quagmire. Surely being a duke must count for something? “But the war has ended,” she lamely pointed out. “That does not bring young men back from the grave to plant my fields, nor fill empty pantries. Such devastation will take years to repair.” “Why have you not said something before?” she rasped. Slowly he turned to regard her with a somber expression. “As I said, I simply assumed that when you chose to wed, it would be to a gentleman of means.

” The sickness in the pit of her stomach became outright nausea. The glorious future she had dreamed of for months was crumbling into dust. “My God . this is horrible.” “Not so horrible.” Her father moved to gently pat her shoulder. “There are any number of suitable gentlemen who will be eager to wed the daughter of a duke. Especially one who happens to be as lovely as an angel.” She abruptly pulled away from his comforting touch, her eyes glittering with suppressed tears. “Do you have no feelings at all? I love Stephen.

I do not want any other gentleman.” Her expression became one of deepest scorn. “Especially not one who only wishes to wed me because I happen to be your daughter.”

.

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